Q&A with SCMP CEO Gary Liu: Asia expansion and digital ambitions

With China now being a global powerhouse, more than ever before are business in Asia are seeing a need to forge a deep connection and understanding of the country's interaction, cooperation and conflicts. This has placed news publication the South China Morning Post (SCMP) in a favourable position. After all, over the 115 years of its publication, SCMP has built a reputation as a news source having a front seat to developments China.

During the recent Asia Matters event hosted by SCMP in partnership with Marketing magazine, SCMP's CEO Gary Liu (pictured) said that the company is now exploring "the plurality of perspectives" coming out beyond China and from Asia. It aims to provide a platform for a comprehensive and intelligent discourse.

"As the gravity of the world shifts from West to East, with the rise of China and ASEAN, we believe that those who understand Asia, are those who truly understand the world," he said.

Currently, the publication draws in approximately 20 million monthly users globally. And nearly 33% of SCMP's monthly users are from ASEAN, with Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines being its keystone markets. Overall, Asia accounts for 50% of its monthly user traffic and Liu said its audience base in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and India is growing too. Hong Kong, surprisingly, accounts for only 10% of its monthly readership.

In February this year, SCMP also revamped its website, employing AI to enrich and personalise content recommendations, which offers brands a greater opportunity to reach more readers. Having first started as a broadsheet, SCMP has branched out into online, mobile apps, short-form videos, podcasts and graphics. Liu said it has also matured into a "bionic newsroom", relying on data and real-time audience insights. Nonetheless, the team is still driven first by the convictions and creative intelligence of the human editorial judgment, Liu added.

"Our products are now infused with AI, meant to provide each user with a more personalised news discovery experience. At its core, it must still hold truth and fairness as the main driving factor," he said.

Liu added that with all its investments and the reputation that it has built up over the years, SCMP is able to position itself as an Asian voice that is comprehensive, globally relevant and accessible to readers. In an interview with Marketing, Liu also shared more about readers' habits, other areas and trends that SCMP is looking to invest in, as well as how traditional mediums can successfully embrace digital.

(Read also: SCMP reveals major redesign and new offices)

Marketing: Some readers might still see SCMP as a Chinese or Hong Kong-centric newspaper. How are you planning to change that perception as you eye regional growth?

Liu: I'm very happy with the perception that SCMP is news about China because that is accurate, that is our expertise and that is going to be our focus. But the China story is now global, it is relevant to global audiences, governments and enterprises worldwide. In that respect, as China's influence grows as a news organisation that is a global expert on covering that impact, our influence is also going to grow.

There are plenty of local stories we are not going to touch because we are not going to be good at covering it. The Straits Times, for example, will always be good at covering specific domestic issues in Singapore, same with local newspapers in Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

We believe that our value to readers in the region is to cover more regional and global issues, especially when it involves China.

Marketing: What is a growth and revenue source for the company?

Liu: Digital for sure because our audience and expertise is in digital. I think our leadership position among Asian publishers and increasingly among global publishers is digital. That is where we have heavily invested in people, technology and expertise over the last couple of years and we want to share that with our partners. We are not ready to break down the percentage yet, but I can tell you that digital is growing very, very fast.

Digital revenue is the fastest growing pocket of revenue for us.

Marketing: What other areas or trends is SCMP looking to invest in?

Liu: AI is certainly one of those things. It makes the user experience better and the product more intelligent. Separately, there are formats we want to invest in. We have grown significantly in video production and video reach. We have also started producing high quality podcasts and audio content.

I personally believe a lot in audio and I think our product and engineering team is invested heavily in discovering what audio is in the future of news. As consumption continues to grow via audio channels such as an intelligent home speaker or truly wireless headphones, we know that news discovery is going to also move towards voice search and audio. So as a news organisation, we are doing a lot of discovery and a lot of research in that area.

Marketing: You have a background working in technology companies such as Digg, Spotify and Google, which is a rather unique route to becoming a CEO of a traditional media house. How have your previous experiences helped in your role?

Liu: First, operationally, I have learnt what a truly scaled operation, a successful scaled operation looks like. That is something we aspire as a news organisation that is going from being regional to global.

The second thing is Digg, Spotify and Google, in effect, they are all media technology companies that have deep insights into user behaviour and are able to build product experiences that help those users discover or consumer and be entertained and educated via content. So a lot of those lessons - product, technology, research and strategic - those are all things that can and should be applied to the news media industry.

Marketing: How can traditional mediums embrace digital successfully?

Liu: The first thing is that news companies have to be user-centric if not user-first. We have to understand that the past to create one product that all users have to interact with because they have no say - that is gone.

Now we have to build products that are relevant to individual users; we have to become user-centric product organisations.

The second thing is that you can't throw the baby out with the bathwater in transformation, which means the key tenets of quality and responsible journalism, the ethics of reporting must remain sacrosanct. If you lose that, you are no longer a news organisation. If you are no longer a news organisation, the value of our brands and the value of our interaction with our consumers is going to go to nil.

It would be very sad that if I see in transformation, publishers of importance do the default lowest common denominator and forget why quality journalism and the dissemination of truth is important.

Marketing: What are the key similarities you see among your readers in the key ASEAN markets?

Liu: Primarily, consumers in the ASEAN marketplace care about domestic news. Where SCMP comes into play is when there are domestic issues that we believe are of regional and potentially global importance, we cover it. A lot of the times, especially right now, it has to do with the trade tensions, how the trade tensions between Beijing and Washington is affecting the ecosystem across Asia, sometimes for the better sometimes for the worse.

Of course, as China's influence continues to expand, there are a lot of diplomatic relations as well between these ASEAN countries and China, and so we cover those in-depth. Those are the kind of domestic issues that our readers in Southeast Asia care about. Generally speaking, it's not just the top of funnel China news, it is specific to country but increasingly, China news is regional Asia news, it's becoming more relevant.

Marketing: How do you cater to readers in the growing markets such as Thailand, India, Japan and South Korea?

Liu: Those are not English dominant marketplaces and we only publish in English. We serve a very specific demographic there. There are a lot of global enterprises that exist and are growing in those marketplaces, there are expats that work there.

In each of those marketplaces, there is an elite class and high spenders. These are the academics, business leaders and diplomats who care deeply about China. In most of those countries that's how we are read, very much like three to four years ago across the rest of the world when our global readership was still relatively small, the people that were reading us then were the diplomats, academics and the business elite. In those specific Asian countries, we are starting to see growth in market share because of that.

Marketing: Which other Asian countries will SCMP focus on moving forward, besides the ones mentioned previously?

Liu: We don't have very specific local tactical plans. For our Asia strategy, it is really our expertise to follow the China story and how it's impacting Asia. So where China moves, what China does and the ripples that it creates, SCMP will be there to serve the local, regional and global audience.